Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
"Jack-up" ships like this are needed to drive massive offshore wind turbines into the seafloor. There's not a single one in the US.
Despite massive growth of the offshore wind industry in Europe, a blossoming array of land-based wind turbines stateside, and plenty of wind to spare, the United States has yet to sink even one turbine in the ocean. Not exactly the kind of leadership on renewables President Obama called for in his recent State of the Union address.
Light is just beginning to flicker at the end of the tunnel: On Tuesday, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a gathering of offshore industry leaders he was optimistic the long-embattled Cape Wind project would break ground before year's end. And in early January industry advocates managed to convince Congress to extend a critical tax incentive for another year.
But America's small-yet-dedicated entrepreneurial corps of offshore developers are still chasing "wet steel," as they call it, while their European and Asian colleagues forge ahead on making offshore wind a basic component of their energy plans. So what's the holdup? Here's a look at the top reasons that offshore wind remains elusive in the United States:
Ken Salazar confers with the heads of Cape Wind, which he predicts will this year become the US's first offshore wind farm to break ground.
If you aren't happy with President Obama's plan for powering the US, don't hold your breath for any changes in his second term.
Speaking today to a conference of leaders of the offshore wind industry in Boston, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation's energy future. "It's going to be very much a continuation agenda," Salazar said of Sally Jewell, Obama's pick to succeed him.
Salazar noted with pride how in Obama's first term, the equivalent of 30 fossil-fuel-fired power plants worth of renewable energy projects have been approved for public lands, a trend he's confident will continue into the future. But stashed away in his remarks was also a renewed commitment to growing fracking nationwide and oil drilling in the Alaskan arctic, two key aspects of Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy that have drawn fire from environmentalists, and which Salazar equated with renewables as "very important" components of America's energy plan going forward.
Salazar: Obama's second term is "going to be very much a continuation agenda."
Salazar, making a rare public appearance without his signature Stetson hat, closed his speech with an excerpt from Obama's recent State of the Union address, wherein the president called on America to be a leader on renewables. But later, speaking to reporters, Salazar expressed ambivalence about the Keystone XL pipeline, saying only that he supported the president's review process and he trusted incoming State Secretary John Kerry, with whom the ultimate call on Keystone XL rests, to make the right decision. He also sidestepped a question about the risks of fracking, saying that "shale gas has a lot of promise for energy security in the US. We will be implementing an agenda that takes advantage of it all."
During his time in Obama's cabinet, Salazar embraced climate change as an issue, overseeing the granting of the US' first two offshore wind permits and helping to draft a regulatory structure for building solar farms, wind turbines, and other renewable energy projects on the 250 million acres of public land managed by his Bureau of Land Management. But Salazar also signed off last year on permits for Shell to drill for oil off Alaska, and has indicated that more Arctic drilling is likely, despite Shell's comedy of errors there this winter.
For most people affected by Superstorm Sandy, the damage was plain to see: Devastated homes, impossible traffic, even lost lives. But for Bruce Brownawell, the storm's biggest consequences are buried under several meters of seawater. Brownawell is a marine scientist at SUNY-Stony Brook who has spent the last several years becoming intimately acquainted with the chemical makeup of mud on the floor of various bays, harbors, and inlets in the New York City area.
When Sandy hit, several local scientists saw opportunity: For Bruce, it was a chance to return to these areas and investigate how strong storm tides shifted mud around—particularly in areas close to several low-lying sewage treatment plants that were knocked out during the storm and dumped raw sewage into the water for days. To do that, he and colleague Jessica Dutton of Adelphi University strapped on mud-proof waders and headed out to Hempstead Bay off the south shore of Long Island. Climate Desk crammed onto the boat for the inside dirt.
There's a growing interest among enviros these days in combating climate change with direct offensives against the fossil fuel industry, sights locked on its bottom line. The idea is that while we scramble to invent more efficient light bulbs and throw up solar panels, we also chip away at the mountain of money that gives the industry its power, by turning shareholders on to the idea that unwise investments can make them accomplices in global warming.
Activist investment is nothing new, of course, the best-known case being the massive movement to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. But it's gaining traction in the realm of climate change: Bill McKibben in particular has campaigned recently for colleges and universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, and Al Gore this month backed the efforts of Harvard students to do so.
Shareholders at a host of corporations nationwide—including Exxon Mobil, fracking giant Nabors, and, incongruously, Dunkin' Donuts—have climate-related resolutions on the table this year that aim to require companies to account to shareholders on everything from mountaintop removal to greenhouse gas emissions to renewable energy use. This week, an unexpected institution became the first major bank to join their ranks and have its climate impact interrogated by shareholders. From the LA Times:
The resolution, which follows years of protests over banks financing certain coal operations, is to be included in proxy material being sent to shareholders of PNC Financial Services Group of Pittsburgh before the bank's April 23 annual meeting.
It asks PNC to assess and report back to shareholders on how its lending results in greenhouse gas emissions that can alter the climate, posing financial risks for its corporate borrowers and risks to its own reputation.
PNC is the only major bank based in Appalachia, a region where coal and gas extraction is a major business. It has long lent to mining companies, including those engaged in mountaintop removal, which involves blowing up peaks to reach coal seams below and has been blamed for degrading landscapes, destroying habitat and polluting streams.
You might not expect a bank smack dab in the heart of coal country to have the most environmentally progressive shareholders, but then again PNC, heavily entwined with the coal industry but not as unbreakably massive as, say, Bank of America, could be fertile ground for climate leadership. The bank has in recent years tried to give itself a green makeover, but apparently not enough to satisfy the shareholders behind the resolution, including a Roman Catholic group and Walden Asset Management. The case PNC ultimately makes to its investors should be an interesting study in the practical power of wielding shares as a weapon against climate change.
This week we've taken a spin inside POLARSEEDS, a new exhibit at the City College of New York open through next week, that uses visual and audio art—from photographs to "sonifications"—to explain the science behind Greenland's melting glaciers. In this last dispatch, graphic designer Ina Saltz explains how artists can translate scientific data into lush visualizations—"an art and a science all of its own," she says. Meanwhile, game designer Ethan Ham tries his luck at "The Polar Game," a custom-built video game where players manipulate cloud cover to keep rising seas at bay.